For those wanting a short review, Itaewon Class is one of the best dramas in recent years and should be at the top of everyone’s Netflix Watch List. However a short review would not do this series justice and there are so many reasons as to why it should be a priority to watch.
Itaewon Class isn’t a new show. It debuted on Netflix earlier this year and on JTBC in South Korea and had amazing ratings – and even from the first episode it’s not difficult to see why. If there was ever a show that has the power to force a viewer to keep watching, Itaewon Class is it.
The first episode of the 16-episode series is full of emotion. There’s love, loss, grief, anger and it’s impossible to stop there. The show jumps between times, starting in the present and then going back to the school days of lead character Park Sae-ro-yi (played by Park Seo-joon), following his life again until the present day.
The basic plot summary is as follows: Saeroyi opens a pub, DanBam, but comes up against some tough opposition from the chairman of a much larger and more powerful corporation, Jangga Co., lead by Jang Dae-hee (Yoo Jae-myung). Admittedly, the synopsis doesn’t sound all that exciting or interesting. How could someone possibly watch 16 hour-long episodes about a man trying to open a pub? That’s where the other characters and their stories come in.
Alongside Saeroyi, who is a determined yet thoughtful and often troubled man, are his staff and friends. Jo Yi-seo (Kim Da-mi) is a bratty yet incredible blogger, who ends up being the driving force behind whatever success Saeroyi achieves. Choi Seung-kwon (Ryu Kyung-soo) is a little clueless but fiercely loyal. Ma Hyun-yi (Lee Joo-young) is quiet, yet eager to achieve. Kim To-ni (Chris Lyon) is a kind heart who struggles to fit in, given his Guinean-Korean background. Oh Soo-ah (Kwon Nara) is the main romantic interest, who is forced to fight between her emotions and desire for success. Jang Geun-soo (Kim Dong-hee) is a little naive, though ruthless. And his brother Jang Geun-won (Ahn Bo-hyun) is thirsty for power and revenge.
There are a number of other characters involved in the storyline too, and even the most minor characters are rounded and have complete story arcs. The characters are, most importantly, all human and each have their strengths and weakness. Viewers see them grow up throughout the different time jumps and the changes that come with their older ages. Their priorities change and it alters the way they interact with each other, which really gives Itaewon Class a fresh feeling every few episodes. Despite a large ensemble cast, there is time dedicated to each of their back stories which helps the viewer understand them and why they do the things they do, or act the way they do. Some let their hearts push them, others are driven by the need to be the best. But nothing feels unexplained or added in as an afterthought.
Soo-ah is introduced as Saeroyi’s love interest, and throughout the series there are a number of will they-won’t they? moments. But things become more complicated by way of Yi-seo, who is very vocal of her romantic feelings for Saeroyi. And just to make it into a nice, complicated love square, poor Geun-soo is desperate to make Yi-seo fall in love with him. From episode to episode, opinion changes on who should end up with who however the ending is incredibly satisfying and almost sickeningly romantic. If only things happened the same way in real life…
On the other hand, the conflict in Itaewon Class is so believable and villains Chairman Jang and Geun-won so awful because they feel so real. It’s a true cat and mouse, or tortoise and hare story, with an intense power struggle running throughout. Saeroyi gets the upper hand, then Chairman Jang beats him down. Geun-won does something unthinkable, and Saeroyi gets past it. The conflict is the main storyline to start with and pushes the viewer to continue to the next episode, before the romantic storylines begin to feel just as important.
Itaewon Class isn’t just a simple good v evil series though, as it touches on a number of very important societal issues.
Toni is the only black character and the series looks at racism in South Korea, which feels especially important in 2020. It looks at both obvious racism, with him being turned away from a night club because he’s “not Korean”, despite having a Korean father, and smaller micro-aggressions, such as his colleagues taking a long time to warm to him or disregarding him as a “foreigner”. While his personal storyline isn’t a focal point of the show, it provides some touching moments and is interesting to see as an outsider looking in on the way race is dealt with in Korea.
Meanwhile, Hyun-yi is a transgender woman, who is forced to deal with the opinions of strangers when she is outed. Her relationship with Seung-kwon is interesting, with him finding it difficult to know how to act around her. But it’s nice to see that, largely, a trans character is supported, gendered correctly (at least in Netflix’s translation) and that their gender identity isn’t the sole aspect of their personality.
Lead character Saeroyi is fairly straight forward. He has one goal – to take down Jangga Co., and his priorities often get in the way of other aspects of his life. He can be incredibly frustrating to watch at times, but he manages to redeem himself time and time again and it’s so easy to cheer him on. His changing relationships with Soo-ah and Yi-seo as the series goes on become just as important as his battle against Jangga Co. and at times it’s not easy to decide who should be his preferred love interest. Their love triangle is messy and catty but lovely to watch, with the resolution feeling correct.
While the storyline itself is worthy enough to give Itaewon Class a watch, its soundtrack is also impeccable. The backing music almost dictates the emotion the viewer should be feeling and guides the episodes, making it clear when to expect some explosive action or some quiet glimpses of raw feelings.
But despite such high praise for Itaewon Class, the storyline feels complete by the end of episode 16 and it would seem a bit of a waste to give it a second season. Of course, given its huge popularity in Korea and overseas, it’s quite likely it will, and the finale does give some indication of where a second season storyline might go. However Itaewon Class season one leaves no story unfinished, no character left hanging and no yearning for more – unless starting right back at episode one for a re-watch counts.